Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for the Environment, meeting on Thursday, 15 October 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Ms A Lo (Chairperson)
Mrs Pam Cameron (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr C Eastwood
Mr William Irwin
Mr B McElduff
Mr A Maginness
Mr Gary Middleton
Mr I Milne
Mrs S Overend


Mr Durkan, Minister of the Environment
Ms Liz Loughran, Department of the Environment
Mr Leo O'Reilly, Department of the Environment
Mr Wesley Shannon, Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Mr Mark Durkan MLA (Minister of the Environment) and DOE and NIEA Officials

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Good morning, Minister. I welcome the Minister; Mr Leo O'Reilly, the permanent secretary; Liz Loughran, director of road safety; and Wesley Shannon, acting chief executive of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Still acting?

Mr Wesley Shannon (Northern Ireland Environment Agency): That is correct.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): We wrote to the Minister, and the Minister has responded in writing to tell us roughly what he is going to say. Minister, over to you.

Mr Durkan (The Minister of the Environment): Thank you very much, Chair. I am delighted to be able to attend today. It has been some time since my last visit, and I have been very busy in that time, as I know you have been. We had some correspondence outlining a couple of the issues that you would like me to address today and the Committee to probe further. I will be happy to take questions from the Committee, not just on those issues; I am sure that there are other issues that you would like some further clarity on, and I will be happy to provide that. Given that time is limited — I will be here for an hour or maybe an hour and ten minutes — it might be more beneficial if, rather than me going into a soliloquy for half an hour and giving you 40 minutes to ask questions, I batted the ball right back to you, so that you can start where you want and dictate the pace and direction of today's dialogue.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I remind members that on page 30 there is a briefing note from the Clerk. Minister, are you not going to make an opening statement?

Mr Durkan: That was it. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Very good. You have mentioned a large number of issues in your press releases lately. In particular, you mentioned a couple of things during our Environment Week. Thank you for your letter and your response to my question about the Environment Week. The Minister was very complimentary about the week, members. The letter is in your pack. You can read it later.

I will start, Minister, with the independent environmental protection agency (EPA). Certainly, I am very supportive of your idea of an independent EPA, and also I think, as you said, it is timely with the restructuring of Departments. There are a number of things. First, how are you going to go about it? There was a previous consultation, I think in 2011. Are you going to go ahead with another consultation? On the timeline for this, we are really going to have only a few months before the new Department starts, in May or some time next year. You also mentioned making it a North/South body; you are going to talk to the North/South Ministerial Council. What is the timeline for all that, for consultation and liaising with the North/South Ministerial Council? What are the costs, and what are your hopes for it? Do you think that we can get it? Last time, obviously, we did not get an independent agency, and the NIEA was put into the Department of Environment instead.

Mr Durkan: Thank you, Chair. I know that you have been a long-time advocate of the need for an independent environment agency, and that you welcomed my announcement about exploring the possibilities of establishing such an environmental protection agency now.

You are quite correct: there was a consultation in 2011. There were 54 responses to that consultation, about 80% of which were overwhelmingly in favour of the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency. However, it is my intention not to rely solely on that consultation. Four years have passed since then. A lot of water has passed under the bridge — not all of it that clean, I have to say. The landscape has changed somewhat in terms of public finances, as well, so I would like to go out to consultation again in order to glean opinions. I am sure that some of the opinions of those who had been in favour of an independent agency will now be even more strongly in favour.

It is worth noting, when I speak of the percentage of respondents who were strongly in favour of the establishment of one in 2011, that there was, I think, only one organisation that responded at that time that was completely averse to or against the idea. Subsequent to that, the agency has been working closely with that organisation, the UFU, on a number of issues, and I think that it is a case of, I suppose, selling to them the values or virtues of an independent environment agency. It is also vital that I do all that I can to gain political support for such an agency. There are very strong arguments for, and you will certainly be familiar with them. There are also some arguments against, and you touched on the issue of cost. I know that costings were done at the time in 2011. The establishment costs and the additional recurring or running costs were substantial but not massive. I think that, at that time, the set-up cost was potentially between £1·2 million and £1·3 million and the additional running cost, beyond what the current cost of running the agency under the auspices of the Department is, was something similar. Obviously, those costs will have changed as well, given the time that has lapsed since the last consultation.

It is also vital that we get some degree of, if not an entire, political consensus on the issue. It is vital for our environment that we do so. If we look at other jurisdictions, we see that everywhere else on this island has that model. The vast majority of countries in Europe have that model, and it is working well for them. Many people would say that it is working better for them than what we have here is working for us. I would also like to say that — I am conscious that I have the acting head of the agency here beside me — the agency is staffed by hard-working, intelligent and passionate staff. The problem is not with the staff; it is with the structure. I think that that is what needs changed in order to deliver improved environmental outcomes and be more responsive to the needs of the planet and our people.

You also touched on the North/South element. Given that we live on a small island, I think that it makes a lot of sense not just environmentally but economically to have one body to deal with issues on the island. However, I am not naive enough to think there will not be a degree of a political opposition to that. That is why, for the foreseeable future, I think that the focus should be on the argument for the establishment of such an agency here in the North. That is what I will focus on right now, although I have previously raised it with my ministerial counterpart in the South. We will, I hope, have another NSMC meeting on 18 November, and I will discuss it further with him then. Like I say, in the short term, what we have to do is gain consensus here in the North. I do not want to jeopardise the potential of getting that here by pursuing the goal of having an all-island agency.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Minister, you are right: a North/South body could be down the line many years, but you do not want to give people the excuse to shoot you down right away.

Mr Durkan: I certainly do not want anyone to do it on that basis.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): What about the timescale, then?

Mr Durkan: Well, it depends very much on how we go about this. Is there a legislative vehicle through which we pursue this? Some people had indicated that the Environmental Better Regulation Bill, which I know the Committee is currently working on, would or could allow for that. However, given the magnitude of the project that we are talking about, I think that we are talking about stand-alone primary legislation. Obviously, given the time constraints in this current mandate, even given a fair wind and full political support, we would be very much up against getting it through. However, I believe that if the groundwork is done now — if we do the consultation now and have the discussions, some of which may or will be difficult — that will at least establish a strong foundation that can act as a springboard for the new Minister, whoever that may be, to take it forward.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): So you are going out for consultation when? Within the next couple of months?

Mr Durkan: I would like to do so within the next four weeks.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): OK.

I certainly recall that there was an amendment, I think, in one piece of primary legislation for an independent EPA, but I cannot remember which one. Wesley, you might remember.

Mr Shannon: I cannot say that I am familiar with that.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I think there was one. I think it was Alex Attwood who put it through at one stage.

Mr Durkan: On legislation? I am not sure about that, Chair. I do know that, at one stage, certainly —

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): It did not succeed, but there was a proposed amendment for it.

Mr Shannon: I would need to check, Chair. I am not familiar with it, to be honest, but we can check the records. I think that, when the Minister's predecessor was doing a consultation back in 2011, one of the options was that there would need to be primary legislation to set up one particular model, if that was the route, but I am not sure that we ever got to the stage of developing actual legislation or proposals.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Because it is such a big issue, you need a piece of legislation on its own.

Mr Durkan: Certainly. At one stage, predating my predecessor — as far back as 2007 — I think every political party represented around this table was in support of such an agency. I am not sure how things changed or why things changed in the interim, but they did. It is up to us and to advocates like you to convince them to change back.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I think the public is on your side, Minister. People want to see an independent EPA. The question is whether we have the political will to do it.

Mr Durkan: Like I said, there are many arguments for it. There is certainly the perception that an independent agency would remove the potential for undue political influence on issues of environmental protection. It would command the public confidence that you have alluded to. In particular, you mentioned the timeliness of it, but, given the restructuring of Departments proposed for next year, there is a fear that it would further fragment the current environmental protection functions that DOE has.

Mrs Cameron: Thank you, Minister and officials, for attending today. I wanted to ask you about road safety and the campaign, but, on the back of environmental protection, I have to raise river pollution with you. You know how badly it has affected South Antrim, especially in recent days — recent years, actually. Is the NIEA going to undertake a full investigation into the matter, with a view to halting or minimising the destruction of our rivers? It seems to be on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis that those incidents are happening now. It is becoming more and more serious.

Mr Durkan: The regularity of the recurrence of those issues is, indeed, very alarming. It is something that causes me great concern and something that I am acting on and ensuring that the agency acts on. I was in Pam's constituency a couple of weeks ago and met an angling group — a group of angry anglers. They were entirely right to be angry at the damage being done, and not just to the wee stretch of river that they angle on. It is damage to the environment. It is killing fish and is causing other damage to flora, fauna and other wildlife around rivers.

On occasion, it is extremely difficult to trace the sources of those pollution incidents. I have been assured by the agency that it is making every effort to do so in regard to each incident. However, that can prove very difficult. I know that it is also a source of great frustration, not just to the anglers but to my officials, that when you do manage to successfully prosecute someone for polluting a river and causing a major fish kill, the penalties handed down by the courts are just not a sufficient deterrent to companies. We have looked at other ways of building on that to make the financial penalty greater by adding restoration costs. If a company or a farmer, for example, is found to have caused a fish kill or a pollution incident, we might be able to get more off them to restore the surrounding environment than they would have to pay by way of a fine from the courts. It is important that we work in partnership with angling groups, not just in the member's constituency, which seems particularly prone to these incidents, but right across the North, particularly at this time of scarce and stretched resources within the agency and the Department and across the other Departments and agencies that have responsibility for rivers and fish. The anglers are the people who know the rivers and who invariably detect that there is something wrong and phone that in. We should be looking to utilise their experience and expertise to maximise protection of our rivers and to maximise the possibility of tracking down those responsible for it.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Deterrence and remedial action are important, but we need to do prevention, education and awareness.

Mr Durkan: I will go back to South Antrim, Pam's constituency. Quite a lot of work was done by the agency a few years back in visiting an industrial estate that is suspected of being the source of many of the problems. I think that over 500 businesses and farms in that area were visited. People were informed of what they could and should be doing to minimise the risk of pollution or environmental damage, and I think that the benefits of that approach are reflected in the figures from the two years after that work was done. We saw a reduction in the number of incidents. Unfortunately, though, over the past year especially, we seem to be seeing a dramatic increase in that, so I have given a commitment to the anglers on the ground and some other locally elected representatives that I will be looking to repeat that exercise.

Mrs Cameron: That is good to hear, Minister; I was going to ask you whether exactly that project could be reinstated or brought back. It was deemed to be effective on the ground. That would be very welcome. We need to do all we can to reduce the number of those incidents.

I will move on to the road safety question. I wanted to ask about the number of road deaths this year: do you have that data? Maybe Liz will have that data.

Mr Durkan: This year, so far, sadly, we have had 57 fatalities on our roads. That is fewer than at this time last year. However, it is still, in my opinion, 57 too many. We have been working hard to reduce the number of fatalities. What is interesting in this year's statistics — I hate referring to it as "statistics", because every one of that 57 is one life lost and one family or community devastated. I do not have the data for this — maybe Liz will — but my reading of it is that we seem to have had more multiple fatality incidents or collisions in which two or three people have lost in their life in one incident. As I say, I do not have the data here, so I might be off the mark when I say this, but I think that the number of fatal collisions has gone down more than the number of fatalities has.

Mrs Cameron: How many were there last year? Is that 57 from January to date?

Mr Durkan: Yes. At this time last year, it was about 62.

Mrs Cameron: We are not far off it.

Mr Durkan: That can change overnight. I get those figures on a weekly basis. You look at them and think that we are doing much better, and then, in the space of three days, five lives could be lost on the roads. It is so frustrating. I would be afraid now to look at them and say we seem to be doing well because, any time I do that, invariably there is a horror collision or two in the next couple of days.

Mrs Cameron: Absolutely. I appreciate that there has been a very large sum of money spent in the past number of years on the road safety campaigns. I, for one, have been questioning how effective they are. I know, because we have been told before, that there is evidence to back up the TV advertisements, in particular. I know some families of victims of road traffic collisions and how utterly distressing those ads are to them.

Mr Durkan: Yes, it is of —

Mrs Cameron: It is very hard on them, and I question how effective some of the campaigns are. I know there has been evidence to back them up, but I wonder where that evidence originates. Is it from independent sources or does it come from those with an interest in the creation or production of the campaigns in the first place?

Mr Durkan: Certainly, in my opinion, there is a fine line to tread in the messages that we try to get out through our advertising. I fully appreciate that some of the ads will be distressing to people — not only to families who have lost someone on the roads, but to others. There is worldwide evidence and opinion that advertising, even in Northern Ireland, has played a major role in reducing the number of fatalities on our roads. It is also worth noting, in terms of distress caused to families, that many families of victims are actually involved in working with the Department on the design and content of our ads. Some of those families are out front on this. We had the 'Broken Lives' series of ads, where victims or families of victims went on as talking heads and recounted their experiences. I found those ads particularly moving and effective. However, it is also proven, through wide and accepted scientific research, that hard-hitting, high-impact ads strike a chord in the public consciousness and affect positively how people drive on the road.

You referred to how much money has been spent on road safety advertising over the years. We do not just spend on advertising; we have other road safety initiatives through education, outreach, working with schools and community groups. This year, our road safety budget was more than halved, so we have had less to work with. We have done our best with that. I expect that there will be a few questions around the voluntary exit scheme (VES) and budget-related questions during this discussion. However, I am in a position now which I never really expected to be in, where more money seems to be coming back into the Department because of the approval of the VES. Just this week, I signed off on new road safety campaigns. We are going down the social media route more, as well. It is important that we use the technology and other media that are available to us — not instead of television, because it is proven that television is the most effective means, but as well as classic TV advertising. Over the next couple of months, we will roll out campaigns through social media. There is one on drink-driving that can be reused next year when the new drink-driving limit comes in, as hopefully it will, if the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill goes through. However, the focus of it will be that the only safe level of drink that you can have when driving is none. There will also be one on mobile phone usage by drivers. That is an issue which, I believe, there has not been enough focus on in the past. It is certainly something that I am looking at. However, in terms of the alarmingly high levels of fatalities, alcohol still plays a major role. It is vital that we maintain our efforts to drive down the number of people who drive while impaired by alcohol and drugs.

Mrs Cameron: Absolutely, and drugs of all types. There is no doubt about it: some prescription drugs that some of us take for even a headache may affect Gary, for example, much worse than they would affect me or whatever. I think that awareness of how medication may affect you would be a good thing to raise.

I very much welcome going down the route of social media. We keep hearing evidence about young drivers and so forth, so we have to look at how we reach young people in particular. I would not criticise the Department for spending a lot of money on road safety; it is of such importance, you would like to have an endless pot of money to combat the problem. However, questioning the effectiveness of using that resource is definitely important.

Mr Durkan: Sorry, Pamela — if I could come in again. It is vital that we try to reach all groups, particularly the most vulnerable road user groups. Sadly, younger drivers are very much up there in that bracket, as, indeed, are older drivers. That is reflected in the grants I awarded this week. I awarded £85,000 worth of grants to projects across the North dealing with road safety. They are aimed at road users in a range of areas. We did work with, I think, the Young Farmers Clubs. We are also doing stuff with the GAA, because it is young road users in rural areas who appear to be particularly vulnerable. A few of the projects are aimed specifically at older road users. I have visited successful projects that gave refresher driving lessons to senior citizens. That is important, because it gives them more confidence on the road.

I think back to when I eventually passed my test — it was, I think, 19 years ago now — and I can see the changes that have occurred on the roads. If you think of someone who passed their driving test maybe 50 years ago, you will find it is shocking to think of the changes. We would see them as improvements, but how much difficulty must they pose for older road users who learned to drive at a time when there were a lot fewer cars and roundabouts and suchlike to negotiate?

Mrs Cameron: Absolutely. That is a welcome initiative, especially for older people.

You mentioned outreach and education. In 2010, when I was mayor in Antrim, I attended a road safety roadshow, which they took to schools and which was sponsored by Cool FM or somebody. They brought children of a certain age together from surrounding schools, and they had victims and real-life police, paramedics, nurses and whatever giving testimony on the stage. That had a massively hard impact. We talk about impacting hard through TV ads, but I can tell you that I witnessed the children, and hardly a dry eye came out of that hall. There were hundreds of children who were about to start to learn to drive. That kind of awareness is invaluable, and it would be good if more money could be ploughed into it. To me, every appropriate age group each year should be able to avail itself of that experience, because it is really targeting resource at a specific need. That would be important. I encourage you if you can to look into that. I am sure that those events still happen.

Mr Durkan: At least one of the projects we funded is focusing on that type of activity. These things are ongoing. However, they do seem to be a bit more isolated, rather than going to every school every year.

We continue to work with our road safety partners, the PSNI, the Fire and Rescue Service and the Ambulance Service to get that information to people. A good time to get that message to young people is when they are just learning to drive or have just passed their test. I have been at events similar to the one that you described and have witnessed the effectiveness and impact of it on the young people present. That was not just the young people; I have watched the teachers recoil in horror at some of the stories from ambulance drivers and so forth.

Mrs Cameron: Absolutely. If that were made more widely available, it would have a very good impact.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): When is the Further Consideration Stage of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill?

Mr Durkan: My officials are engaged in a piece of work subsequent to the last stage of the debate. I know that they have sought out — I hope that they have sought out — some members around this Table. I do not know whether they have, but I know that I directed them to do so. We are in a situation where, for example, if I was to decide that I might want to table an amendment to the Bill, in the absence of the Executive meeting, I cannot do so. That reinforces the need for good collaboration between the Department and you as a Committee.

The Bill, as proposed, was amended at the last stage. I know that Sandra tabled an amendment to it that was carried. My fear is that if the Bill as it stands now, as amended, was to come back and be further amended not only would its impact be diluted but there is a possibility that many of the good aspects of it could be lost through an attempt to change one bit that might not be as important. It could be like a game of KerPlunk, where you could pull a bit out and all the marbles might fall.

I know that my officials have been out speaking to groups such as the Young Farmers Clubs, and I am keen to get it back on the Floor and out on the roads as soon as possible. I have no doubt that this legislation will play an important part in savings lives. I appreciate that the Committee recognises the importance of that.

Mr A Maginness: Thank you very much, Minister, for coming with your officials. An issue has been raised recently, I think really in the aftermath of the huge bonfire that took place in east Belfast, which was seen on television and, eventually, collapsed. Thank goodness, it did not directly affect houses in that area. However, it highlighted the issue of bonfires and the need for some sort of regulation for bonfires, principally on the grounds of safety and, secondly, on the grounds of pollution, because there seems to be extensive use of tyres and other pollutants as material for bonfires.

I am not against bonfires — if people want to have bonfires to celebrate 12 July or whatever, that is fine — but it seems to be an area in which there is no regulation at all. In the aftermath of that some weeks ago, you raised the issue of licensing bonfires. I was wondering whether any progress had been made or work done on that. The concept of licensing seemed to me to be an interesting one, and it seemed to gain some traction with public opinion. Is that still at a conceptual stage, or has any work been done on it? If work has been done on it, where are we and what is the timescale?

Mr Durkan: Thank you, Alban. You are quite right. You referred to media coverage on bonfires during the summer. I have to say that this was not in response to a single bonfire in a single constituency, although I think that every year there is more and more media coverage of bonfires. They are literally giving oxygen to bonfires. While I would in no way ever try to suppress the media from reporting, for example, people having to leave their homes as a result of a bonfire being built in close proximity to them, I also sometimes wonder whether that media coverage does not maybe encourage someone in a neighbouring estate or somewhere else to go one bigger or one better — or one worse — the following year. I am very concerned about bonfires. You referred to the environmental damage, and they also cause social harm. Indeed, they have economic consequences for all of us, given the cost of cleaning these things up. In this day and age, these consequences have, in my opinion, become completely unacceptable.

The current legislative position relating to bonfires is extremely complicated. I made public my views just last month, but it is something that I had been thinking about for some time. Prior to that, I met councils, and it is worth underlining that the councils are the lead agency with responsibility when it comes to dealing with bonfires. I was interested to meet councils and to hear what actions are being taken by the different councils to deal with this issue in a sensitive manner. A sensitive manner is required, and I fully appreciate that. It has to be said that there is good work being done by the councils. We have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of bonfires, despite the dramatic increase in the media coverage of bonfires. It is very important that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has been working with our partners in council. We have to broaden that out now. However, there are other partners here. You have the Department of Health, DRD, DSD, the emergency services and, most importantly, the community — or communities.

My deliberations gained a bit of traction in the media, but, again, that just highlighted how divisive an issue this can be. I have to say that, in bringing forward any proposal to deal with the bonfires issue, I have no desire to be divisive. This is not about punishing any community; it is about helping people in those communities to move forward.

I think that we have moved beyond the stage of initiating this debate now. I had been looking at three options. One was to continue and develop best practice, and I referred to some of the very good practice across the council areas. Another was to more rigorously enforce all the relevant legislation on bonfires. As I said, the relevant legislation is extremely complex, but I had looked at existing legislation on fireworks or even the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1985. Thirdly, the option that I am of the opinion is the best option is to license bonfires. Those who run orderly bonfires have nothing to fear from such a proposal.

I am keen to hear the Committee's views on this; I was not going on a solo run by any means. Again, this is one where we have looked at what way we could legislatively bring it forward. Could we go on existing legislation? Again, I think this is one where primary legislation would probably be cleanest.

It will not be the quickest way, but it will be the cleanest, and the Committee will have a huge role to play in progressing it.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Could there be power under the Environmental Regulation Bill to legislate for bonfires? It deals with environmental harm and says that environmental activities should be protected.

Mr Durkan: Yes, that is one vehicle that I looked at. We could jump on that. However, the Committee will be well aware that the Environmental Better Regulation Bill is well down the road — at least I hope it is — and I would be afraid of lumping bonfires on it while it is on that journey. You might knock it off the road, given that this is a difficult and sensitive issue.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I am thinking that down the line you could use an SL to regulate.

Mr Durkan: Certainly, that is not an option that I would rule out or that anyone should rule out. Again, I am not naive enough to think that we can do this without extensive consultation and without making a huge effort to attain some degree of consensus on the benefits of this. We all have a responsibility to play as elected representatives, public representatives or, indeed, responsible members of society and to lead communities in this and to reassure them that they have nothing to fear from this. This is not an attack on culture or anything remotely like it; this is an attempt to protect the environment and to protect people living in communities who feel threatened by this type of thing when it is unregulated and out of control.

Mrs Overend: It is good to see you at the Committee this morning, Minister.

I wanted to ask you about your decision on banning GM crops here in Northern Ireland and primarily on how you got to your decision. I will then follow on with another question.

Mr Durkan: Thank you, Sandra. GM crops is an issue that has attracted quite significant media coverage Europe-wide over the summer months and beyond. I am certainly informed by many articles that I have read on it. When the issue came across my desk, time was somewhat limited, let me say, for us to respond to Europe with how we wished to deal with the matter. I sought advice from officials on a number of occasions, and that certainly helped inform me in making my decision, which I believe was the right one.

Mrs Overend: Did you not consider that the matter needed to go across to the Executive?

Mr Durkan: What Executive?

Mrs Overend: Did you talk to any of your ministerial colleagues?

Mr Durkan: I have legal responsibility for all GM-related issues, and this is one of them. I believe that I had ministerial authority to make this decision. As a matter of courtesy, I communicated with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, because the issue was to do with crops, which is obviously agriculture-related. I also referred to the quick turnaround that was required for this paper.

While I certainly acknowledge that the issue is controversial or has been treated as such here in the North, it is not that controversial, given that, on the EU-approved list of crops, there were eight named crops, none of which are grown here in the North and none of which are suitable for growth here in the North. Subsequent to my decision, two of those names have dropped off the list, which makes it even less relevant to here. In that respect, it actually made it a much, much easier decision.

Mrs Overend: That is fair enough. There are concerns about the importation of crops and GM foods as such. Are there any plans to ban the importation of genetically modified crops to Northern Ireland?

Mr Durkan: I am fully aware of the importance of genetically modified foodstuffs to our agrifood industry. It is a separate issue altogether. This decision poses no threat to that.

Mrs Overend: I appreciate that clarification. The automatic thought is obviously the concern for the agri-sector across Northern Ireland. It is a big issue

Mr Durkan: I appreciate that it is difficult at times to draw a distinction between the two. It is also worth underlining that I referred to the crops on the approved list, and I said that none of them are suitable for growth here. The decision is not carved in stone. Crops might come on board in future that are suitable and that might be deemed safe for here. A future Minister at that stage would be able to go back on the decision. That is the way the option was written; it is not a no, nay, never.

Mrs Overend: That is fine. I am sure that the agri-sector will be pleased to hear that you have no plans to —

Mr Durkan: Even the response from the agri-sector to my decision was "Oh well, it doesn't really affect us". The UFU response was something along those lines. I have also been contacted by representatives of the agri-sector in the South who were hugely frustrated that their Minister had not made the same decision, despite, I have to say, earlier indications that he might.

Mrs Overend: I also want to touch on the smoky coal issue, if that is OK. The Republic of Ireland is going ahead with banning smoky coal: when are you expecting to get the final all-Ireland report that we discussed previously?

Mr Durkan: I expect to get that report by the end of this year. I noted with interest the comments of Minister Kelly on this: he said that the first he saw of it was in the media. They were perhaps a bit premature, given that we have not received a final report. I know the issue has been the subject of several questions and a debate in the Chamber. During that debate, I undertook to, when we receive the draft report, send it out for consultation addressed to parties and stakeholders. I did so. Obviously, when it comes to progressing this or any future decisions, I will very much take into account the responses to that consultation.

Mrs Overend: When the final report comes, will you base your decisions solely on that? Will it be more wide-ranging? Is that what you are saying?

Mr Durkan: It will be more wide-ranging. I will take soundings from a number of sources. I have no doubt about the intention behind this, particularly in the South. There is an idea that it will be some sort of panacea to cure us of all air pollution; it is a bit more complex than that. I have raised issues before with the report when I saw it in an earlier form. There seemed to be different standards, North and South, in how some of the data had been compiled. That is not particularly acceptable.

Mrs Overend: I appreciate that response. Thank you, Minister. I have another couple of questions, but I will let others in.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Yes. I have a list of members wanting to come in.

Mr Milne: I thank the Minister and the Department for coming along this morning. I want to touch on a couple of things.

First, I would like to ask you about wind energy. The Department has committed to undertake a fundamental review of that. We had a special adviser, if you like, who came here to speak to us about ETSU-R-97, for example. She believed that it was outdated and not fit for purpose. When do you intend to hold that inquiry? Have the terms of reference been developed, and, if so, what will they include?

Mr Durkan: I had undertaken that, post publication of the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), a full and comprehensive review would be carried out, not only of planning policy statement PPS 18, to which you refer, but of PPS 21, to which I suspect Barry will refer. [Laughter.]

Work has already commenced in the Department on drawing up terms of reference. Obviously, those will require widespread consultation, and I look forward to that. I know that it is something that you as a Committee have been calling for for some time. I am certainly cognisant of the findings of the report into wind energy carried out by the Committee. I am sure that that will certainly inform the review and the reviewers. It is something that I want to happen quickly, but it is something that has to be done thoroughly as well. You will certainly be kept in the loop, and your input will be valued and looked forward to.

Mr Milne: Minister, in light of the withdrawal of the renewables obligation certificates (ROCs) for single wind turbines, lots of individuals have been encouraged in the past to go down that path and have spent tens of thousands of pounds on applications. I know that it is more of a DETI thing, but they have spent a lot of money on applications. Is there any way of reimbursing those people for the moneys that they have spent on something that is now not going to be viable?

Mr Durkan: Single turbines would be dealt with by the councils now, so the councils can reimburse them if they want. I have met individuals in situations like that, and I can fully understand their anger. I am pretty frustrated as well. As I said, all single wind turbine applications will now be dealt with at councils, as will the majority of wind farm applications — anything under 30 MW — so there are ones that may have been with the Department and were then handed over to the council. I have said publicly that the transition of planning to councils was not exactly seamless, and some time may have been lost in dealing with those applications. Cognisant of that, I have written to Amber Rudd, the relevant Minister in England, and asked her to give special consideration to here because of the changes in the planning system, and to try to buy an extra bit of time for people who had their applications in the system. Unfortunately, that has not fallen on a very sympathetic ear. I also met Minister Bell on that to try to outline it to him and have him make the argument more forcefully to the appropriate Minister across the water. Again, we have not managed to do so.

I have been inundated, not only with correspondence from single turbine proposers but from some wind energy companies. You referred to people having spent tens of thousands on applications. We are talking about companies with tens of millions of pounds of investment that are really thrown up in the air. They have a wee bit more space. They have until the end of October, but I am in a situation now where some councils have not really progressed these applications. There are a few applications that I have actually had to call in from councils in the hope that we, centrally, are able to get them across the line in time, if they are approvable. Some might not be approvable no matter who looks at them, but that is difficult as well, given the resource we have left at the centre. The Department is not that big in our planning division either.

Mr Milne: Do you see the withdrawal of ROCs making things more manageable for councils or for your Department, which would then affect targets?

Mr Durkan: Clearly, if it is less attractive for individuals or companies to submit wind energy applications, we will see less of them. I have a genuine concern about the impact of the decision on our ability as an Executive, a Government and a region to meet our Programme for Government targets on renewable energy. I know that there are other sources of renewable energy, and I expect there to be an increased emphasis on them in the coming year but, beyond that year, subsidies to them will be dramatically reduced as well.

Mr Milne: Thank you very much.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I just want to pick up on the review of the SPPS on renewable energy. What is the time frame for that and what would that include? What is the scope of the review?

Mr Durkan: That is a full and fundamental review of the policy as it is. PPS 18 is one that I managed to get changed a bit through the SPPS, which was largely a consolidation of existing planning policy statements. I eventually managed to tweak PPS 18, although not specifically in regard to wind energy; rather, it was to tighten up a line in the original PPS 18 that we thought was pretty permissive. Time after time, the Department, where it had seen fit to refuse permission for a wind farm, was being beaten on appeal because of that particular line in the planning policy statement.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Which one is that?

Mr Durkan: Originally, it was that "significant weight" would be given to wider economic and environmental benefits. I just changed it to say that "appropriate weight" would be given. Again, that required a bit of toing and froing between the Department and the wind energy companies as well, because they were not best pleased.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I am glad of that, because you can probably recall that, in our wind energy inquiry, we mentioned the economic aspects and that an application needs to be more specific about what economic benefits proposals claim to bring, for example that it will create so many jobs etc. We need more specific, material considerations to be set out.

Mr Durkan: I think that by endeavouring to change that in policy, it demonstrates, as with my comments today, that, while I am extremely regretful about the impact that ROCs will have on our ability to deliver renewable energy — I am a huge advocate of and believer in renewable energy and our need to support that — I do not believe that it should be anywhere or at any cost.

Mr McElduff: Consistency sometimes becomes predictability. You referred there to PPS 21. Like PPS 18, PPS 21 on development in the countryside is an area for review by the Department at this time. I think that you said in the recent Adjournment debate that that is already under way. So, I would like a bit more detail about how people will be consulted in that process.

I want to emphasise one piece at this stage, which I spoke to you about privately, and that is the whole area of personal circumstances. I think that the Department has set the bar impossibly high for people wanting to secure planning permission on the grounds of personal circumstances. I have numerous examples of individual applicants who plan to care for one, two or three family members and may be coming home from Australia to do so. It is adjudicated by Planning Service not to be compelling, but any rational human being seems to think those cases are compelling. It is about the definition of "compelling". I am aware of a case, which, again, has been ruled out because it is not sufficiently compelling, yet the circumstances in the home are pitiable. Care and support are required by a family member who wants to build nearby. Is there ever a circumstance where anybody's personal circumstances qualify as compelling? I have never seen any. That is one aspect. There are so few opportunities to build in the countryside — farming-related or infill opportunities, perhaps. In the case of personal circumstances, the Department is setting the bar too high, and people are being punished. They cannot understand it. I invite comment on that.

Mr Durkan: Thank you, Barry. Yes, groundwork on the review has started behind the scenes. The Committee will know about it before it goes public and the public are able to become involved. I know that the policy underwent review recently; Alex Attwood carried out a review of it. However, I certainly think that it could do with further review given the number and range of issues that have raised their head over the past couple of years. However, not everything in the policy is wrong; not everything in the policy will change. Personal circumstances is an issue for the planners' judgement or discretion. The majority of these decisions will be made within councils. You and other members will have represented constituents and tried to help them get planning applications through, be that when you were on a council or as an MLA attending office or site meetings with local planners and making arguments on behalf of constituents and their compelling personal circumstances. You will have won those in the past. Over the past 18 months, however, there has been very much a tightening up on that. Planners will attribute that to a ruling by the Planning Appeals Commission around 18 months ago that said that the only evidence that they could take would be the six years with the DARD number. Previously, you might have got by with six years and then — sorry, I am on CTY 10 now rather than on personal circumstances.

Mr McElduff: It is CTY 6 that I am a bit anxious about.

Mr Durkan: Yes, planners are afforded discretion on personal circumstances. I am not sure if it is down to nervousness or a lack of confidence, but planners have chosen to err on the side of caution for fear of setting a precedent. They are ensuring that they are not overrun with applicants who point to what Mickey Joe down the road said or what Mary up the lane said and what she got for saying it. It is no coincidence that the tightening up started happening in the run-up to the transfer of planning to councils. I think that councils wanted to know where they would be starting off from and what their policy would be, rather than having a hangover of these precedent-type issues.

We spoke about an individual case. I have passed that on to an official who, hopefully, has been in touch with you. If not, I will make sure that he gets back to you. I know that it can be extremely disheartening for applicants who find themselves in these unique situations and can elicit no sympathy whatsoever from the powers that be.

Mr McElduff: How are people to be consulted in the review?

Mr Durkan: That has not been established yet. You lived through the last review, and still have the scars to prove it, I am sure. It will be something similar to that. Consultation is key to getting this right: the more views we have, the better. Every view will be considered.

Mr Irwin: You are welcome, Minister. I am new to the Committee; I have sat on it for only a couple of weeks. Sandra mentioned the fact that you have banned GM in Northern Ireland: I am not saying whether I support it or not, but is it not a contradiction that we import thousands of tons of GM product but ban the growing of it in Northern Ireland?

Mr Durkan: Not particularly. There is a difference between growing something and the risks that that causes to other crops being grown here that are non-GM. If a farmer is growing non-GM crops and the guy in the next field decides to grow GM crops, it poses a huge risk of cross-contamination to the guy who is growing non-GM.

Mr Irwin: But we import thousands of tons of GM product into Northern Ireland.

Mr Durkan: Yes, but we are not growing it.

Mr Irwin: I know we are not. I accept that. However, you said that we grow only 10% of our product, so it is immaterial; I understand that. However, it just seems a contradiction to me that we import thousands of tons but we do not grow it. Do you understand?

Mr Durkan: I do. However, in my response to Sandra, I recognised the importance to our agrifood sector of GM foodstuffs and how valuable that has been to putting us where we are in the international market, when it comes to the agrifood industry.

Mr Irwin: We just could not compete without it.

Mr Durkan: However, I also have to say that what puts us up high in the international market is our clean, green image, and staying non-GM when it comes to growing crops will very much help us in that regard.

Mr Irwin: In relation to an independent environment agency, you said that it would take probably £2 million to £3 million a year to run it. Set-up would cost £2 million to £3 million. Is that correct?

Mr Irwin: Do you count that as good value for money?

Mr Durkan: These figures were based on costings made in 2011. We would have to look at what comes out when we do the calculation again. I am keen to look at how we can get better value for money and I know that, as a Department, we fund many environmental NGOs. Through greater collaboration with such organisations, we might be able to elicit better value for money again. We all have the same ideals and aspire to the same outcomes, so I think that we can certainly work smarter in order to achieve those at better value to the taxpayer.

Mr Irwin: You said that, in the previous consultation, only one organisation or group was against it and that was the UFU. You would accept, of course, that the UFU has several thousand members.

Mr Durkan: Entirely. That is a given, and I was not in any way trying to hide that fact. I referred to it positively when I said how it was OK with the GM decision.

Mr Irwin: In relation to accountability structures for any new independent environment agency, would they not have to be political? Would those accountability structures not have to have some political input? You said that an independent environment agency would be independent of politics, but surely to goodness there has to be accountability structures and politicians would have to have a say in it.

Mr Durkan: Absolutely. You cannot have an organisation going guerrilla. However, I have to point to the South, England, Scotland and Wales, which all have independent environment agencies. I am keen to look at what models they have elsewhere and learn from them. We do not necessarily have to do a cut-and-paste from Scotland and put it here. There might be things that Scotland does that are great but there might be things that they do that, we think, we might be able to do better or that Wales does better. In many respects, the fact that we are behind the other regions on that is not necessarily a disadvantage because we will be able to cherry-pick the strengths of having an independent agency. We can cherry-pick the good bits and make sure that we do not take on the not-so-great bits.

Mr Irwin: I have one final question about the extra £3 million a year. I think that, in answer to a question last week, officials said that they did not have the manpower to go out and look at the, say, thousands of septic tanks in the country that I feel are not up to scratch, but we still have the manpower to spend an extra £3 million on setting up a new body. That is a contradiction, too, in my eyes, because that £3 million could be better spent on dealing with issues on the ground.

Mr Durkan: I have not used the excuse of resources yet. However, there is certainly a resource issue, with the VES ongoing. However, I have every confidence that, as we move into the new Department, we will have structures in place to deal with reduced manpower. That can be attained through working smarter with organisations such as the UFU, for example. We have been in prolonged negotiations with the UFU on how we could increase compliance among farmers and, in doing so, reduce the red tape or the hoops that they have to jump through. I remain committed to doing that. If we can get more people complying and have to spend less time and less money chasing up after them and checking on them, it will free up our resources to go after those who are not complying.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I presume that it will be a non-departmental public body.

Mr Durkan: Yes, that is one option that we can look at.

Mr Middleton: I welcome the Minister. I am sure that he made the same journey as I did this morning. You see all sorts of people when going up the road. You sometimes see ladies doing their make-up and, surprisingly, men shaving on their way up the motorway. Something definitely needs to be done to get the message out there on improving road safety, but the onus is on all of us to be careful.

I will move on to the voluntary exit scheme, which is important to many individuals in our constituencies. Minister, will you provide an update on the VES and on the restructuring programme in your Department? What impact is that having on the Department? You said that there is money coming back in: is there an opportunity to look at the funding for NGOs as well?

Mr Durkan: I thought that we would never get here. There may be some good news. With the agreement for the VES getting the go-ahead, it is anticipated that, by the end of March 2016 — the end of tranche 3 — some 300 staff will have left the Department. The savings that the Department will accrue as a result are somewhere in the region of £3·3 million. Clearly, we will have to consider how we reallocate that or where that money is spent. I have already made a decision on giving the go-ahead for additional spend on road safety campaigns. I am also cognisant of the criticism that we came under at the start of the year when we had to make cuts and from certain quarters about the fact that we were being conservative in our budget in that we were working on the presumption that the VES might not happen. It has happened, and we have this money coming in.

I am conscious of the commitments that I made about where I would spend that money if it came in. Local government was particularly hard hit. We had to cut the rate support grant, which I asked the Executive to ring-fence from any cuts because they are not even beneficiaries of that. That grant is aimed at bringing the less well-off councils, such as your former council, up to near enough a level that is standard among other councils that are much better off.

In total, the rates support grant was cut by £2·8 million. If more money comes in, I will look to reinstate as much of that as I can. There were other cuts to councils such as emergency planning grants, which were cut by £500,000. I have put money back into road safety, and there is the potential for more to go back.

You asked specifically about ENGOs. Most public focus was on those organisations when, as Minister, I had to make tough decisions about where money would or would not go. In the aftermath of the criticism that I got, which was maybe a wee bit premature, for cutting funding to those groups, I was able to establish, through the carrier bag levy, the natural environment fund, and those ENGOs availed themselves of some £2 million. It did not bring them up to quite the level of funding that they had been receiving previously, but they were extremely grateful for it and have made extremely good use of it.

I am working with NGOs to see how we can establish a firmer or more secure funding mechanism for them so that they are not living year to year. That is not exclusive to the environmental NGO sector but is right across the voluntary and community sector. Good organisations that do good work are maybe not able to focus as much on that work as they should because they are so busy trying to keep the wolf from the door and to see where their next round of funding is coming from or how much it might be. I am working closely with the sector.

Mr Middleton: Thanks very much for that. You mentioned the rates support grant. We have heard from our council in Foyle many times about the challenges that local government reform has posed for councils. Are you saying that there is a situation whereby the rates support grant can be reinstated?

Mr Durkan: We will not be in a situation in which it can be reinstated fully. Next Tuesday, I am meeting the partnership panel, which comprises representatives of the 11 councils and Ministers, and we will discuss that further. I will go back to the jotter and the calculator to work out how much we can give. I had given a commitment on that; not everyone here may like the commitments, but it is fair to say that I honour them.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): May I ask you to elaborate on funding for the ENGOs? I know that you sent out a press release recently asking NGOs to apply to INTERREG V — the cross-border one.

Mr Durkan: That is completely separate from departmental funding.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): However, not all organisations can access that.

Mr Durkan: No, but some can. It is important that the Department supports those that can and those who cannot access that fund to bring as much money into this place as we can to carry out important projects and functions.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I agree with you. What about the natural environment fund? Are you in negotiations with anybody in the new Department on how that may be carried over into next year?

Mr Durkan: Work is ongoing at official level between the DOE and DARD. The natural environment fund came from the carrier bag levy, and, in legislation, any money that is generated through that levy has to be used for environmental purposes. That puts us at a bit of an advantage in that we at least know that there will be that money for environmental purposes and projects. We have been working closely with the sector, and it is appreciative of the work that we are doing. We have been not only in listening mode but in acting mode. We will not leave it to chance; I want to give the sector the security that it needs to get on with the work that we need it to do.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Do you anticipate that it will still be roughly over £4 million? This year, it was £4·4 million.

Mr Durkan: That is the projection. Obviously, we hope to get to a stage at which less money is generated through the carrier bag levy. The idea behind that levy was not to generate cash but to reduce the usage of carrier bags, which it has done very successfully. However —

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): It is coming back up again.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I have one last brief question, Minister, because I know that you have to go. With 300 staff going into the new Department, how will that affect the clout of the DOE's remit and powers? You will be going in with a reduced staff.

Mr Durkan: Yes. It is very important that the environmental functions that are going to the new Department — do not forget that other functions are going to other Departments —

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I know; you are being split up three ways.

Mr Durkan: We are being split up three ways, and all those functions are very important and must be protected and promoted in their new Departments. Most of the focus, and probably most of my focus, has been on the classic environmental functions that will go to DARD. It is important that we go into DARD with those functions on a strong footing with the agency, regardless of how it looks. That is why I am so committed to working with the sector. I at least need to know that it will know where it stands. I have spoken before of the importance of our collaboration with it in delivering environmental outcomes. It is vital that relationships with the sector are preserved, and we have to widen our pool beyond the ENGOs. That is the beauty of the challenge fund. It is not just up to the agency and the ENGOs to protect our environment but up to every one of us. Educational outreach through things like the challenge fund is bringing environmental projects into communities and schools. The Eco-Schools project is now in 100% of schools in the North. We are the only region or country — if you want to call it that — anywhere in the world to have hit 100%.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Yes, it is fantastic.

Mr Durkan: That is a target that I set when I came into office, when we were at only 60%. I think that it is the first time that I ever got 100% in schools. It is vital that we educate the public and ensure that every one of them does their bit to look after our environment.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Roughly what proportion of staff will go to the three new Departments?

Mr Durkan: I do not have that level of detail with me, Anna, and you said that your previous question was your last one. [Laughter.]

That was my last answer.

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): OK. That was my final, final, final question.

Mr Durkan: You are like Columbo. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson (Ms Lo): Thank you very much, Minister. There are no more questions. Thank you, Leo, Wesley and Liz. We hope to see you soon before we all finish, Minister.

Mr Durkan: Definitely.

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